Android TV has been catching up in the entertainment industry, which is filled to the brim with a lot of options from other companies. Samsung and LG, for instance, ship their smart televisions with Tizen and webOS respectively, and global e-commerce giant Amazon has its toes in the industry with the like of Fire Sticks. And so does Apple with Apple TV. These products cost a lot of money if you have to factor in fees you will have to part with in the process of taking full advantage of them.
Still, Android TV is the way to go because there is a good chance it is packed in televisions besides those of the aforementioned South Korean manufacturers. This effectively eliminates the need to set money aside for an Android TV box, although on the whole, an STB is the best way you can enjoy Android TV.
In most cases, the OS (Android TV, in this case) baked in your television will not give you the best experience due to performance limitations. Put differently, manufacturers do not pack the best of specs to service the OS for obvious reasons (obvious here being that they are selling you a TV in the first place, and equipping it with the best hardware besides a display may cost more). Just check the specifications of your smart TV; they are quite pedestrian.
Also, Android TV, just as it the case with Android on smartphones, is inherently resource-intensive and must be accompanied by robust specifications to offer the best entertainment experience.
Often, good to better specifications are found in an Android Box and not your budget to mid-range pictorial stereo. Even then, you have to spend a little more money to really appreciate the merits of STBs as is the case with Nvidia Shield TV.
Anything else below that will perform just fine and will be subject to software slowdowns over time, which is what’s happening with my Xiaomi Mi Box 3 that has been under use since late 2018.
Is it a good product? Oh, yes, it is! Does it have shortcomings? Obviously, and we are going to look at both sides of the coin in a couple of paragraphs so that you can make an informed choice as to whether it will serve you TV entertainment needs – bearing in mind that we will be seeing most of these devices in store shelves in coming days after the Chinese manufacturer decided to make its local presence a big deal by opening Mi Home Stores in Nairobi (only one is open at the moment).
Hardware overview and box contents
One of the best things about the Mi Box 3 is its size. It is smaller than Safaricom’s competitor that I reviewed many moons ago, and oozes strict design tolerances than the latter.
It is painted in black with the subtleness you would expect from a product that is meant to do one thing, and do it well. The painting is not as glossy as Safaricom’s, so it will not pick scratches as quickly. Most people love that.
There is a Mi logo on top of it, and besides the tiny series number details at the bottom, among others, there isn’t any text of screaming design trends that could make it more unique.
About its compactness, I love that you can sneak it behind your TV or in one of the slots of your TV stand. It will stay there, and you will not see it unless you really want to.
In the box is the device itself, a power cord, a comfortable dark black remote, batteries for the remote (two AAAs) an HDMI cable and some warranty materials. Quite a modest package.
One thing you should note is that the HDMI cable is rather short, hence you may need to pick another one if you need to place it away from the TV.
The remote has the buttons you need: a navigation pad with essential android hardware keys for back, home and search, a power button and volume control.
The good thing with setting up a TV box is its undemanding nature.
All you need is to hook up the box to the TV using the included HDMI cable, power it up and pair the remote to the box by pressing the Home and Back buttons at the same time until the connection tone goes off.
In fact, there is a guide that explains the set-up steps, so you should not worry during the first boot experience.
Afterward, all you need is enter your internet connection credentials and Google account, and you are good to go.
Unfortunately, the Mi Box 3 does not include a SIM card slot as is the case with Safaricom Box so if you needed to use a SIM for your streaming services, then this is not the STB for you.
Included Apps and software overview
The Mi Box has a few apps that have been installed for you, including Netflix, YouTube, and a bunch of other Google apps such as Google Play. You can add more based on your tastes.
Now, it is worth noting that this device ships with Android Nougat at first (I’m not sure if that is the case in 2019). Nevertheless, you will be prompted to update it to Android 8.1 Oreo after a couple of moments. Xiaomi has also been sending several patches I lost count.
The interface is typical Android TV stuff: you can add apps to the home page for quick access. There is an app drawer button right at the top.
There isn’t much you can do in terms of customization besides moving your apps in and out of the home page.
- Make you have adjusted the display resolution to fill up the entire TV screen real estate as the original resolution condenses content to the middle of the panel, leaving you with large black borders.
- As mentioned, check for updates to make sure you are on the latest versions. Updates help in enhancing the overall experience with cosmetic touches.
- Add in a second Google account if your family uses the Box while you are away. This will maintain your primary YouTube feed as those algorithms are very aggressive in suggesting content.
- Install a good file manager app. I use Solid Explorer – and it plays a vital role when installing apps that are not found in Google Play. More of that in a few.
Performance and experience
For housekeeping purposes, the Mi Box 3 has 2 GB of RAM, and your apps and files are limited to 8GB of internal storage. The package is powered by a 2 GHz quad-core processor and a Penta-core GPU. A modest set of specifications, to say the least.
Opening apps is a smooth affair. They run fine, too, and most of my tools have never crashed.
I have very few apps, most of them being TV apps such as Netflix (because I’m rewatching Breaking Bad and Prison Break – else I find the service quite expensive for its limited catalog of films and shows) Showmax because it is dirt cheap at KES 250 for three long months and Prime Video.
These apps perform admirably in most cases and push their pixels up to 1080p. I could get 4K with HDR on Prime Video but haven’t been able to do because my TV’s hardware limitations cannot showcase modern video details.
Showmax, however, is subject to performance issues, and freezes from time to time, prompting me to perform a reboot. I have experienced the same thing with YouTube, but I am yet to tell if it is a software thing, or my connection is terrible.
About YouTube, it cannot push 4K content, at least in my experience. Any time I try to do so, it stalls completely, and my theory is the same TV’s hardware limitations cannot process high-res video – and has nothing to do with my Wi-Fi connection.
Lastly, I have noticed slipping performance over time. Apps still open moderately fast, but I feel the experience could be faster, bearing in mind that even entry-level Tizen and webOS TVs perform better than this.
The Mi Box 3 supports Google Cast, which has been a lifesaver when streaming content from other services and devices. However, the Box never plays nice with Spotify, and that makes me sad. I use the music streaming service so much and prefer casting audio to the Box for a better experience with my Bluetooth speakers. The issue here is that a connection takes forever to go through, and disconnects after playing a single song or two.
I have checked online for the setback, and it appears it is a common problem among Mi 3 Box users. The bug is probably with Google and Spotify, as the same complaints have been brought forth by solutions such as SmartCast on Vizio audio products.
Secondly, Prime Video started working on the Box only a fortnight or so ago. Before that, I couldn’t run the app because Google, which owns Android TV and Amazon that owns Prime Video had some form of business disagreement that saw the two corporations engage in a petty fight that broke their services on either platform.
Luckily, this matter has since been resolved and finally, we can enjoy Prime Video on Android TV Boxes (Prime Video has good shows such as Two and A Half Men – and it does not need your kidney every other month as is the case with Netflix).
For whatever reasons, the Mi Box 3, furthermore, does not read memory sticks. This means you cannot install apps from flash memory, so you need to get a little creative.
Using Google Drive continues to work for me: just upload your apps there, and access them via a file manager that allows you to add cloud storage accounts. I suggest Solid Explorer – although it is not a free app.
Finally, do not even think of using Google Assistant and voice commands: the mic on the remote does not pick voice inputs fast, and will likely be confused by your accent.
Should you buy it?
The Mi Box 3 has and continues to serve me well, save for the mentioned issues. It is cheaper than Safaricom Big Box 2 that does not even run Netflix unless you install an older apk, and is more beautiful.
However, the problem with the Mi Box 3 is availability. Xiaomi Kenya usually ships in limited units that are grabbed in a day or less, perhaps because the selling price is quite attractive. Third-party retailers sell the device at a slight premium, which I do not encourage you to get.
A better option is the Mi Box S that the manufacturer promised to bring to Kenya. It is the 3’s immediate successor and retains most of the 3’s specs, besides from supporting HDR for people with supported TVs. Otherwise, the two are practically the same, including memory configurations.
It is also likely the Mi S will receive additional software support such as an update to Android 9 Pie that I believe will not grace the 3; so it is a better buy.
Generally speaking, buy the Mi Box 3 if you can get it at an attractive price, which should be around KES 6000 or less, else, just pick the Mi Box S. You will have an outstanding experience if you are not too needy in terms of hardware performance. It is also likely your favourite apps will run just fine.
As you may have noted, there aren’t many issues with the Mi Box 3. It runs apps as expected, and you can run a couple of them but be mindful of internal memory and RAM limitations.
It is a compact beauty too, meaning it will not take too much space on your cabinet.
However, some issues such as a broken Google Cast experience, horribly slow Google Assistant and voice command responses and limitations to reading external memory sticks may be unforgivable to some – but I have learned to live with them. I, for instance, don’t give commands to my TV by barking at it.
Of course, the Mi Box S is a better choice, but if you need more power, spend more money and buy Shield TV.
Lastly, you actually do not need an Android TV box or the Mi Box 3 for this matter if you have a newer LG or Samsung television with webOS or Tizen the two platforms make Android TV look like a sluggish mess.